3 How valuable is play?
3.1 An overview of the issues
As Section 2.3 demonstrated, there has been a long tradition of valuing play in early years settings. Most definitions and descriptions of, and justifications for, play are from the adult's point of view. The dominant discourse of play in early years settings presents play as fun, enjoyable, free from externally-imposed rules, unpressurised, unlikely to lead to failure, intellectually challenging, more concerned with process than final product and ‘owned’ by the child, with children in control of their own learning. What else do you think could be added to this list?
A study into reception-class teachers’ views about – and use of – play questions some of these widely-held assumptions about the value of play (Bennett et al., 1997). The study explored the views of nine reception-class teachers about play and how they incorporated play into their practice.
One of the beliefs challenged by the study's findings was that play is a valuable learning context because the children have ownership and are interested and self-motivated. The data suggested that children were often unable to gain much from a particular play episode because the practitioners assumed the children possessed a range of complex skills, ‘such as making decisions, carrying out their plans, co-operating with peers, sharing resources, problem-creating and problem-solving’, and in some cases this was not the case (Bennett et al., 1997, p.121). Children were also observed as being ‘hands on’, but not ‘brains on’; they would appear to be playing in the way the teacher had hoped and expected they would, but in fact they were not intellectually engaged (Bennett et al., 1997, p.121).
It is often argued that play encourages children to be independent learners, but in order to be an independent learner the child has to develop a range of strategies and skills, ranging from selecting resources, through working cooperatively with others, to reflecting on what they know and what they need to know. Again, the study suggested that play experiences do not automatically develop these abilities in children.